Out and about – Motivate your students by sending them out of class!

by Neil Millington

I am a teacher at a university in Japan. In a traditional Japanese English teachers classroom it is the role of the teacher to give information and for the students to listen. I am not saying this is the case with every English class, but there are several academic papers that suggest many English teachers feel they need to do this in order to prepare their students for important entrance tests to high school and university.

I prefer to facilitate and I make an effort to keep my teacher talk time down to a minimum. With my English major students who are motivated to learn and speak English, this approach seems to be quite successful. These classes are usually quite lively and the students seem to enjoy themselves. However, in classes with non-English majors it can take the students some time to adjust to this teaching style. Many of them don’t have a particularly high level of English, others just aren’t confident enough to do this, and some just don’t know what to say to each other when given the opportunity to chat.

Of course I try to scaffold these activities. I wouldn’t expect students just to sit around and freely chat with each other without guidance, but some of them still struggle with this. I wanted to create opportunities for them to really want to talk to each other and for them to have something to say to each other. I don’t use a textbook and I try to prepare materials that are relevant to them, but I wanted to go a little further.

Changing the Environment: Getting the Students Out of the Classroom

So, this semester I decided to do something completely different. I read about an incident with a school teacher in Japan. This particular teacher had to temporarily move his class to the gym because his classroom was being renovated. This teacher reported on how the atmosphere of the class changed dramatically once the students were out of the classroom and in the gym. I thought this was interesting and wanted to try to do something to get my students out and about. I decided that every other week I would send the students out of the class. I thought it might help to change their image of what an English classroom could be like and help them find something to bring back and talk about. This is how I set up this activity.

During the first week we would cover a relevant topic. For example, just after the New Year’s break the topic was being lucky. In Japan, many people go to a shrine to pray for good luck for the coming year and buy an omikuji and omamori. (The first is a piece of paper that predicts your fortune and the second is a good luck charm.) During the first class, the students discussed visiting a shrine and different superstitions in Japan. The following week, the students had 20 minutes of class time to go out of class in a group with their friends and make a short video with their smartphones of a superstition or something lucky or unlucky happening.

When they came back into class I gave them a worksheet with a series of questions to answer about the video they made. You can see the questions below. They then had time to work with their group members and prepare and practice their answers to these questions. Once they have all done this they edit their video and share it amongst their group members. Each group then took their worksheets and smartphones and talked to people from another group. They asked and answered the questions on the worksheet and played the videos.

Getting Jazzed Up: The Results

The first time I did this activity it got mixed receptions with my non-English majors. Some weren’t sure exactly what to do and others were a little hesitant to play their videos to everyone in the class, but there was a lot of laughter and a lot of English being used so I persisted. Towards the end of the semester the atmosphere had changed completely. They seemed to really enjoy chatting and playing their videos for each other. They got more creative and they started using some cool apps to jazz up their videos. I had one particularly shy class and they responded really well to this. They loved getting out of the classroom! I often observed them on campus making their videos and they were having a ball. More importantly, when they came back to class, they were using much more English and the interaction improved dramatically.

If your situation allows it, I certainly recommend sending your students out and about. I felt it gave the students a little more freedom to create situations to talk about what they wanted to talk about. It certainly livened up my non-English majors and encouraged the shyer students to use more English.